persuasion

Getting to the Point by Scrapping Padded Prose

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose clogs up the message you want to deliver to your audience. Choose words wisely and make each one count. Lean language is more audience-friendly and likely to inform, impress and persuade people.

Padded prose is a good way to bore, confuse or frustrate readers. So why do writers keep wasting keystrokes and tempting the patience of their audiences?

It’s not ignorance. Any book about effective writing encourages lean language. Writing instructors are blunter in their advice – “say what you mean, and no more.”

“In old baseball films, pitchers would execute an absurd, double-rocking windup before throwing the ball. The extra histrionics did nothing but bore the crowd and sap their own energy,” writes Ron Reinalda. “Similarly, today’s writers toss in superfluous phrases before making a point. Readers have no use for them, and they waste everyone’s time.”

In his blog for ragan.com, Reinalda provides a list of verbal “culprits.” It’s a long list, but it would have to be even longer to cover the entire wasteland of superfluity. Here’s a few of his most wince-inducing bugaboos: 

  • Not surprisingly – “If it’s not surprising, why mention it?”

  • Never forget that – Readers will decide whether it’s forgettable or not.

  • The truth is – “Is revealed truth or just a truism?” Or just a lazy transition?

  • The fact of the matter is – Ugh. Just spit out the “fact.”

  • I want to start off by saying – “Too late. You started off by clearing your throat.

There are other page-wasters that add no meaning while exasperating the reader. My short list includes:

  • The fact that – The fact is you should rewrite your sentence and leave out this useless and clunky phrase.

  • In order to – The infinitive form of a verb can do this job without any help. (“To support” rather than “In order to support”)

  • Literally – This has become the new “like” and “you know” in speech and writing. When used correctly, this is helpful adverb. Most of the time, it is used as a crutch or exclamation mark.

Dead wood in sentences is just part of the problem. As Reinalda points out, “Many writers don’t get to the damn point.” At times, it seems writers don’t know what point they are trying to make, which can make superfluous phrasing all the more irritating.

If you rationalize flabby prose by pointing to your “conversational style” or “old habits,” you are off base. Flabby speech is as cringe-worthy as flabby prose. You can drop old habits, pretty much like you have with rotary phones and DVDs.

Your writing should matter, so write like it matters. Spend time thinking about what you want to say, master your topic so you know what’s important and then commit your thoughts to words – words that tell your story, explain your point of view or share valuable information and no more.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

 

Think Like a Lawyer, Write Like a Journalist

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Public affairs professionals who seek to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests would be wise to think like a lawyer and write like a journalist, activating both the right and left sides of their brains.

Legal writing can be, for lack of a better description, legalese – stilted, ponderous and opaque. However, behind all that seeming pomposity is a clear way of thinking centered on facts, corroborated evidence and credible sources.

Writing for general public consumption, as journalists do, requires a more comfortable, inclusive style, using words that are commonly understood, phrases that paint pictures and sentences that convey a point with clarity.

The best of both worlds is when writers think like lawyers and write like journalists. Thinking like a lawyer and writing like a journalist is an example of activating both the left and right sides of the brain. This is how public affairs professionals should communicate.

Thinking like a lawyer doesn’t have to crimp your writing or speaking style. Thinking like a lawyer can add order and authority to what you write. Thinking like a lawyer can narrow the focus of what you write and sharpen your key messages. Thinking like a lawyer can make your argument more believable and persuasive.

Training to become a lawyer involves learning how to conduct research, interpret the law, build a case and defend an interest. Those can be valuable insights for public affairs professionals as they write advocacy pieces, op-eds and testimony that seek to inform and persuade.

A key principle in legal thinking is establishing a solid foundation for assertions. Legal thought can be fairly portrayed as rational, logical and linear. Facts aren’t Christmas tree ornaments; they are building blocks. Arraying facts in support of a position diminishes ambiguity, provides clarity and creates confidence in what’s being asserted. This is exactly the job description of public affairs professionals. 

Public affairs professionals don’t do their job in front of judges. But they in effect do their jobs in front of juries that may be neighborhood associations, interest groups or townhall meeting audiences. Orderly presentations conveyed in plainspoken language and accompanied by credible written or visual evidence can convince juries in a courtroom – and “juries” anywhere else.

Another useful trait of legal training is understanding the value of dialogue and learning by listening. This is must-have skill for successful public affairs professionals.

Legal training has drawbacks for communicating broadly. Lawyers tend to downplay emotive forces, overlook creative options and ignore inspirational themes. Those may have little place in a courtroom, but they have a definite place in the court of public opinion. In their writing, journalists report on topics evoking emotional and inspirational responses. They look for creative way to tell their stories. 

There are lawyers who are good writers and effective speakers. They understand the powerful combination of legal thinking and journalistic writing. Public affairs professionals should emulate that same combination to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Further Thoughts on Framing, Reframing and Spin

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

People judge information based on their beliefs as much as the facts, which amplifies the need to frame or reframe an issue to be heard beyond your own tribe and persuade someone from another tribe to consider the issue on your turf.

Genetics research shows the evolution of life on earth is less like a tree and more like a virus. Evolving life doesn’t sprout new branches; it swaps genes between species.

This radical notion stuns our brains. What we thought we knew is undercut by a new way of understanding. We haven’t changed, but the frame through which we see something has changed. Instead of seeing evolution as a tree, we now see it in the shape of a web.

Frames are the mental structures that shape our view of the world, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and progressive activist. In his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” Lakoff argues that our frames match our values. There also is evidence that our frames mirror our beliefs. We select events and facts for our frame that confirm what we believe.

If you think illegal immigration is a scourge, you watch Fox News for stories that confirm your belief. If you think the Trump administration is corrupt, you devour Vox online stories to prove you are right.

For issue managers, this is a brave, migraine-inducing new world. Facts aren’t necessarily facts if they don’t fit within your frame. Our training to traffic in factual material with credible validation seems outdated – or at least outgunned.

The so-called post-truth era is actually the propaganda era. You don’t win with facts; you win with spin. A key to spinning is how you frame an issue. However, framing isn’t just about spinning; framing also is an essential way to break through the fog of people’s beliefs.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “ Don’t Think of an Elephant! ” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and considered an expert on how to frame issues to avoid being constantly on the defensive. A political progressive, Lakoff’s book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” describes how political conservatives have taken to heart the need to do the homework necessary to create persuasive issue frames.

Lakoff says how you say something is as or more important than what you say. That’s a startling statement. Lakoff’s view relies on research in the 1980s by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman that shows humans are consistently irrational, in part because of mental shortcuts that process information by sorting it according to existing frames.

This explains the frustration of rival partisans who can’t understand why their opposing counterparts don’t see things the same way as they do. They have different frames. Two people in the same house can have radically different views if one looks out the front window and the other looks out the back window.

Changing people’s minds becomes difficult because of radically different frames between the would-be persuader and his or her intended audience. We tend to argue from our moral viewpoint, which may be wholly inconsistent from the people we seek to convince.

In his book, Lakoff details how political conservatives have spent untold amounts of money over several decades to come up with powerful frames intended to solidify a political base and force opponents to debate on their turf.

Good examples are “partial-birth abortion” and “gay marriage.” Both terms were designed to shift the conversation about reproductive rights and marriage equality to frames consistent with conservative thinking. They replaced terms such as “pro-life” and “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Forcing people to defend certain kinds of abortions blocked a discussion of whether the state should overrule decisions made by women and their doctors. Employing the word “gay” before marriage was a clever way to summon up stereotypes about gay men and women.

A framing battle is warming up over the word “socialism.” Polling shows a rise among Democrats in support of socialism. Republicans scorn socialism as the opposite of capitalism. However, as Paul Krugman discusses in a series of tweets, “socialism” has become an intentional frame (or wedge) to cast suspicion on raising taxes to maintain Social Security and Medicare, or what some political conservatives call “entitlements” and Democrats refer to as the “social safety net.”

One of the better issue framers of our time is our current President. Through tweets and campaign rallies, Donald Trump creates and reinforces frames (Crooked Hillary, witch hunt, failing New York Times) that he believes give him political advantage by forcing others to rebut him. As we’ve seen, the rebuttals tend to solidify the viewpoints of his supporters. Trump’s claim that he can murder someone on the streets of New York and not lose a vote is compelling evidence he knows what he’s doing.

Those of us in the persuasion business spend time thinking how to frame issues to best advantage. We do our best work when we recognize existing frames and capitalize on them. When necessary, we try to find ways to reframe an issue so discussion can be in a more favorable mental arena.

Framing and reframing, especially on persistently contentious issues, isn’t easy or even obvious. It takes hard work. It demands understanding the moral perspective of the audience you seek to influence and creating arguments and imagery that fit within that frame.

Reframing can be as straightforward as convincing someone accustomed to looking out the front window to spend a moment looking out the back window. Same house. Same landscape. Same neighborhood. Different perspective.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. However, in the face of a bewildering public arena that stretches from backyard patios to digital clouds, simplicity can be a guiding virtue.

Keep that Tangled Tree argument of evolution in mind. People who don’t believe humans evolved from apes may be shocked into listening when you share evidence that 8 percent of human genes come from bacteria, plants and other animals and may be the key to our survival and dominance of our planet.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Being Gracious Instead of Pugnacious

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

When you face an unruly crowd, tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, more polite you. Grace under fire will fluster and disarm your opponents.

Hard-chargers are often chosen to be the face and voice of a campaign involving a contentious public policy issue. That can be a mistake if they come across as pugnacious rather than gracious.

Issue managers would love to believe that facts and firmness move the needle of public opinion, and they can. But personalities often are a bigger influence by establishing a bond of trust.

For example, the tenor of a public forum can turn on a presenter’s conduct. Being gracious can be a big help in quieting and even swaying a rowdy crowd. Civic conversation has grown coarser, or at least it seems so, as people feel unburdened by civility in the comments they make and questions they ask. A successful influencer doesn't take the bait. He or she receives comments or questions with equanimity, then thanks them for the challenge and answers calmly. Grace under fire flusters and disarms opponents.

A gracious person can disagree without being disagreeable. They see disagreement as a chance to make the case with convincing facts and logic, not trash someone else's point of view. They recognize this is the path to earn grudging nods of approval.

A gracious demeanor conveys humility, respect of others and a sense of self-confidence. You don't talk down to an audience or try to snow them with your superior knowledge. Being gracious means staying positive and paying attention when others speak. It also means saying thank you and acknowledging when someone else makes a strong point. Graciousness requires knowing what not to say as much as what to say. 

So tame your internal ninja and channel a kinder, politer you when you face a hostile crowd. Use graciousness as a weapon of choice.

Content Marketing in Public Affairs

If your aren't adhering to the principles of content marketing, you may not be doing your job as a public affairs professional.Some public affairs professionals pooh-pooh content marketing, even as they devour op-eds, letters to the editor and media coverage of their pet topics.

Content marketing has been embedded in public affairs DNA for a long time, becoming an essential tool to explain complex issues and demonstrate the consequences of action — or inaction.

White papers, proof of concept, legal analysis, third-party testimonials and financial audits are long-time public affairs staples. They have been augmented by SlideShare presentations, infographics and videos to tell your side of a story.

A critical principle of content marketing is producing material that attracts and sustains the interest of your target audience. When they do their jobs effectively, public affairs professionals zero in on what's important to a lawmaker, regulator or neighborhood group. They generate communications that answer the questions their audiences want answered.